Friday, 1 May 2015

Science and sexism

Priya Kurian & Debashish Munshi

It’s 25 years since the field of feminist science and technology studies (FSTS) was launched with the publication of The Death of Nature: Women, Ecology and the Scientific Revolution by environmental historian and philosopher of science Carolyn Merchant. It’s also the 20th anniversary of feminist scientist Evelyn Fox-Keller’s path-breaking Reflections on Gender and Science. Merchant, Keller and numerous other scholars including Donna Haraway, Sandra Harding, Anne Fausto-Sterling,  and Nancy Tuana (to name just a few) illuminated not only why gender and feminism were central to understanding the social construction of science, but also the inherent sexism in the practice and study of science. The critiques they offered ripped apart the cloak of objectivity that was wrapped around the pursuit of science, and laid bare the consequences of the value-laden gender divides for not only women scientists but also the academic realm of science itself.

We would have thought that the contributions of the burgeoning and exciting field of FSTS would have had some impact in changing the ways in which science researchers and practitioners looked at issues of gender and science. Yet, the challenge of eradicating sexism in science is as formidable as ever.

Our current blog has been sparked by the shocking news of an utterly sexist review received by two women researchers on a manuscript they submitted to a scientific journal.  Believe it or not, the two women co-authors, one a UK-based evolutionary geneticist and the other an Australia-based evolutionary biologist, were asked to “find one or two male biologists to work with” to make sure they didn’t drift “too far away from empirical evidence into ideologically-biased assumptions” (see Science magazine for a report on the incident). Wow! Is ‘objectivity’ the exclusive domain of men? Aren’t men ideologically-driven? In fact, doesn’t the review perfectly demonstrate just how ideological and profoundly sexist so-called “peer review” can be?

While social media as well as mainstream media are agog with the news, sexism continues to cast a shadow on the world of science. The ideological biases of a male-centric domain make it particularly difficult for women scientists to thrive and survive. A recent compilation of the discursive (and other) assaults on women in the world of science (See article in the Huffington Post) reveals how women face extraordinary psychological pressures of demeaning and belittling sexist statements such as “You are not smart enough to be a biologist” or “You are too pretty to be a physicist”. 

The systematic exclusion of women from the “boys’ networks” in the sciences and the derailment of careers and opportunities for women demonstrate how far we yet have to go.